Rule Change Would Deny Green Cards for Food-Stamp Use

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Trump administration issued a rule Monday that allows the government to deny green cards or visas to people who rely on public benefit programs, or if they might need such programs, including food stamps, Medicaid and housing subsidies, in the future.

Vice President Mike Pence speaks at a ceremony for new naturalized citizens, in celebration of Independence Day at the National Archives in Washington on July 4, 2019. Acting Director of U.S. Immigration and Immigration Services Kenneth Cuccinelli sits at leftNew rules can deny green cards for immigrants on food stamps. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The Immigration and Nationality Act already specified that those who are likely to become “a public charge” are ineligible for green cards or visas. The rule the Trump administration announced on Monday clarifies the definition of public charge to include reliance on food stamps, Medicaid and a list of other public benefits.

The rule will penalize people if they receive the benefits for more than 12 months across a three-year period and will apply to applications received after Oct. 15.

Under the rule announced Monday, federal officials will look at whether a prospective green card or visa recipient is benefitting from a federal program, as well as if the person is likely to do so in the future. 

The rule does carve out some circumstances in which the receipt of a public-benefit program will not weigh against an immigrant’s application. These include people in the military and their families, people who receive Medicare Part D low-income subsidies, and pregnant women and people under 21 enrolled in Medicaid.

Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told reporters Monday that the consideration of an immigrant’s use or potential use of public benefits will be one factor the government considers when determining eligibility for green cards and visas. The rule considers the receipt of one or more public benefits a “heavily weighted negative” factor in determining whether an applicant is likely to become a public charge.

The rule also lists “heavily weighted positive factors” that can help an applicant avoid a public-charge determination, including having private health insurance and making more than 250% of the federal poverty line.

Cuccinelli said the move “encourages and ensures self-reliance and self-sufficiency” in people who immigrate the United States.

“The benefit to taxpayers is a long-term benefit of seeking to ensure that our immigration system is bringing people to join us as American citizens, as legal permanent residents first, who can stand on their own two feet, who will not be reliant on the welfare system,” Cuccinelli said Monday. “Especially in the age of the modern welfare state, which is so expansive and expensive, frankly.”

The new regulation drew immediate opposition from immigrant rights groups on Monday, including the National Immigration Law Center, which said it will file a lawsuit challenging the rule.

“This news is a cruel new step towards weaponizing programs that are intended to help people by making them, instead, a means of separating families and sending immigrants and communities of color one message: you are not welcome here,” NILC executive director Marielena Hincapie said in a statement Monday.

Noting that historically the public-charge rule was limited to people who were mostly reliant on government programs, rather than to all people who use them, NILC staff attorney Max Wolson described Monday’s change as significant.

In addition to potentially imperiling the immigration statuses of people who take advantage of the programs, Wolson said the rule figures to have a chilling effect on people who might be eligible for the programs, but are concerned about how they will impact their immigration status.

Immigration advocates have expressed concerns that this might extend to people like refugees whose statuses cannot be impacted by the public charge rule, or to people who are participating in programs the rule does not consider.

Wolson said there have already been a “substantial number” of people who dropped out of programs for which they were otherwise eligible after the Trump administration announced it was considering changes to the public-charge definition in October 2018.

“The notion that the harm of people disenrolling or forgoing services will only occur based on what the rule actually limits is sort of belied by the fact that we’ve already seen people that didn’t have to abide, that the rule didn’t exist yet, we’ve already seen those people disenrolling previously,” Wolson said in an interview.   

Allen Orr, first vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said it can be difficult for advocacy groups and others to educate people about what exactly the rule does and does not do.

“It’s very difficult, because most people who are impacted by the rule don’t have lawyers,” Orr said in an interview. “I mean, that’s exactly the point, that they don’t have the level of service and information that’s available to people who have resources.”

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